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Tip-toeing through the tamaracks

John Woodworth and Dana Boyle talk with fourth-graders from Royal Oaks Elementary in Woodbury about some of the plants and animals that live in the preserve, as well as threats to the tamarack fen, including invasive species and water pollution. Submitted photo

Angie Hong is an educator for East Metro Water. Contact her at 651-330-8220, ext. 35, or angie.hong@mnwcd.org.

If you sit very quietly in the middle of a tamarack fen and close your eyes, you can hear a goose honking in the distance, a red-winged blackbird trilling from the cattails, and 24 little kids, desperately trying to be still.

Woodbury's Tamarack Nature Preserve is the southernmost tamarack swamp in Minnesota and a jewel within the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District. The preserve includes 2 miles of trails as well as a floating boardwalk that crosses a special kind of wetland known as a fen. During a recent field trip, fourth-graders from Royal Oaks Elementary in Woodbury explored the winding trails of Tamarack Nature Preserve, studied some of the plants and animals that live in the preserve, and learned about threats to the fen, including invasive species and water pollution.

Tamaracks are a unique type of conifer, common in northern Minnesota, with needles that turn color and drop in the fall like a deciduous tree. They thrive in acidic, nutrient-poor wetlands, peaty lakeshores, and along boggy edges of streams; can live to be more than 300 years old; and were documented to be the most common type of tree in Minnesota at the time of European settlement.

The Tamarack Nature Preserve in Woodbury is classified as a fen instead of a bog because groundwater flows into and through the wetland. Unlike other wetlands in Woodbury, the fen also has layers of peat at least 1-foot thick floating on top of wet areas, which creates a quaking forest impossible to walk across (hence the need for a floating boardwalk).

The Royal Oaks field trip last month was part of a groundwater education initiative funded by Washington County. Prior to visiting the Tamarack Nature Preserve, students learned about the water cycle and groundwater through games and an interactive groundwater model developed by the University of Iowa. Using the model, Washington Conservation District staff demonstrated how people get water from underground using wells, how groundwater flows into lakes and streams, and how contamination on the land's surface can infiltrate down into aquifers. Then, they headed down the road to the preserve to see a real example of a groundwater-dependent natural area.

At the preserve, students met "Adopt-A-Park" volunteer stewards — Dana Boyle, Stephanie Wang, John Woodworth and Anna Barker. They tiptoed across the wiggling boardwalk, learned about invasive buckthorn and hybrid cattail, and played a "whodunit" game designed to teach them about everyday sources of water pollution, such as dog poop, litter and lawn fertilizer. The fen is home to dozens of special plants including swamp milkweed, marsh marigold, arrowhead, blue-joint grass, boneset, bottlebrush sedge, woolgrass and sensitive fern. Despite living near the preserve, most kids said they had never been there before and many were excited to go back later and explore it with their families.

If you tiptoe through the Tamarack Nature Preserve this winter, you might find deer sheltering from the winter's wind, black-capped chickadees dancing across the tips of the tamaracks, or nodding cattail fronds, dusted with frost. Or, you can grab a pair of skis, glide through the nearby woods and relish a quiet moment with nature.

Visit www.tamaracknaturepreserve.org to find maps of the Tamarack Nature Preserve, download field guides and birding apps, and see photos and videos of the preserve.

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